Hill-Murray robotics team wins Iowa regional

submitted photo Team captain Connor Propp and the robot nicknamed “Hope” get ready for the game.

submitted photo The PioNerds posed for a photo at the Northern Lights Regional event in Duluth.

photo courtesy of FIRST Robotics The FIRST Steamworks arena consists of an airship for each alliance and a boiler, which the robots can fill with fuel.

PioNerds set to compete in national championship in St. Louis


After a season of mixed success, Hill-Murray’s robotics team, the PioNerds, will be competing at the FIRST Robotics Championship in St. Louis for the first time, following a win at the Iowa Regionals last month.

For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology is an international youth organization that operates the FIRST Robotics Competition, along with a number of other competitions. In FIRST Robotics, teams of high-school-aged students are given six weeks to build and program a robot from a kit of limited parts.

These robots compete in field games at regional events where they vie for the opportunity to advance to the championship. The field games require each team to enter one robot to compete as part of an alliance of three teams against another alliance of three teams.

This year’s game, FIRST Steamworks, has a steampunk theme, and requires two alliances to prepare airships for a long-distance race. Each alliance has a handful of ways to score points and prepare to take flight: build steam pressure, start rotors and climb into the airships.


A season of growth

The strict parameters of the game are enough of a challenge, but this year, the PioNerds had a few unique obstacles as well. 

When the PioNerds competed at the Northern Lights Regional event in Duluth in early March, a rope that their robot had to climb broke — not just once, but three times — according to Hill-Murray math teacher Ben Gapinski, who is also the robotics adviser. He added when the rope broke, the robot fell about six feet and some of the electronic components were damaged.

“As a result, we started to lose communications during matches up in Duluth, and so we had all sorts of problems and ended up not doing very well at all in Duluth…so that was hard,” Gapinski said.

It is common in FIRST Robotics for teams to compete at more than one regional event if they are able to generate enough funding. This year, thanks to local team sponsors, the PioNerds had a second chance for success at the Iowa Regional held in late March.  

“This is the first year that we ended up going to two regional events because we just haven’t had funding in the past to go,” Gapinski said. The Hill-Murray robotics team has existed for five years.

The PioNerds’ sponsors include 3M, Reiling Construction, Du Fresne Manufacturing and Grace Technology and Development.

Despite a second chance for success at the Iowa Regional, the PioNerds continued to face challenges when some members of the drive team were unable to stay the full length of the event. The PioNerds involves 24 students total, but the students on the drive team can be hard to replace last minute.

“The big one that we lost was the driver, I mean that is a vital role, and to be able to replace him with somebody that was doing comparable, if not better, was a big obstacle,” Gapinski said.

Gapinski explained the team was doing well up until the drive team switch, but it was hard to know what to expect after that. Senior Andrew Nimmo subbed in as driver, taking the place of senior team captain Connor Propp. Also subbed in were sophomores Harry Zhao and Matt Wallner and seniors Luke Miller and Austin Rohde. They replaced sophomore Adam Behun 

and seniors Elise Potvin, Emily Schabert and Sam Henkes.

“We had a driver come in with zero competition experience and [he] ended up leading our team to the victory going through quarter finals, semifinals and the finals,” Gapinski said. “He just did phenomenal!”

“I was a little nervous driving it,” Nimmo said of subbing in, “but after that it was just fun really.”

After several qualification matches, the top eight teams are each given the opportunity to draft two other teams in their alliance for the playoff games, which is called the elimination.

“This was actually the first time that we had ever been selected for playoffs to go into those alliances for the elimination round,” Gapinski said. “We were excited and happy about that, that we finally got selected and then to actually go through and win the whole thing … it was unbelievable.”


Preparing for the championship

Now the PioNerds are preparing for their first-ever FIRST Championship. They will be one of 400 teams competing April 26 through 29 in St. Louis, Missouri.

“We definitely have surpassed any goals that we had set at the beginning of the season, but at the same time I don’t want to go to the world competition and just have fun. I really want to be able to compete, and making the elimination rounds in our division, I think, would be a goal that we set for ourselves,” Gapinski said.

“As a new team at nationals, if we were to qualify [for the elimination round] that would be huge for us,” Propp added.

Propp’s dad, Hal Propp works as a software engineer for Boston Scientific in Arden Hills, but he also has experience in electrical engineering. After watching his son compete in last year’s robotics competition, he said he was inspired to get involved as a mentor.

“As a mentor, some of the students have never worked with even power tools or anything like that, so first off, we make sure that we train them so that they know how to use a power tool correctly,” Hal said, adding he also tries to spur conversations amongst students and get them thinking about the most efficient way to solve the problem at hand.

Hal explained this year the robot is primarily offensive, meaning it’s trying to score points instead of blocking the opposing robots from scoring points. 

Now, in their time before the championship, the PioNerds are designing a better ball shooter for their robot. Although they can now build and test prototypes, they will have to build the final shooter and add it to the robot at the championship event. According to Gapinski, the team is focusing on the ball shooter with the hopes 


of making the PioNerds a more attractive alliance partner.

“We’re still designing it right now, but we’ve found a pretty good design and I think it’ll work pretty well,” Nimmo said.

Hal explained that the ball shooter uses pneumatics, which the team hasn’t used before. He added that this is just one example of this year’s team focusing on including higher technology in their robot.

“I think we’ll be for sure ready to have a good competition and really compete,” Propp said.

Hal pointed out that regardless of how the team performs at the championship, they have already been exposed to real-life engineering experience.

“You’ve got a deadline, not a lot of time to work on it and you’ve got to get the project done. I thought that was really valuable for the teams to actually get to see that,” he said.

Gapinski added that he is already proud of the PioNerds.

“The resilience and the determination that they showed between Duluth and Iowa, to bounce back from that, was really commendable,” he said.


Aundrea Kinney can be reached at 651-748-7822 or akinney@lillienews.com.


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